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Lost

Maybe sometime in the future, we’ll append important dates in television history with tags such as AL and BL, after anno-Lost and before-Lost, respectively. Like, ‘new drama Awake appeared on NBC this past Thursday, March 2012 AL…’ This isn’t to say much about the quality and innovation of Lost as a series (because really, what did Lost do that Twin Peaks didn’t do more than a decade prior?), but more observably, Lost convinced many a TV writer that it was possible to go high concept on broadcast television – get weird with storytelling, expand arcs beyond an hour, manage pacing more organically, and still deliver Nielsen-wise. Admittedly, at the same time this sort of artistic experimentation was already happening in spades on the premium channels.

The most riveting, critic-baiting dramas of recent years have arguably all sprung forth from a gated premium-cable community that, prior Netflix and its ilk and the digital revolution, compelled several to call upon their shady friend with the ‘fixed’ cable boxes in his trunk to keep up with the ongoings of gangsters in Jersey or drug dealers in Baltimore. From then ’til now, with very few exceptions and the arrival of de facto freemiums such as AMC, the common wisdom has it that higher quality of drama is implicit when you opt for the higher cable bill; more cerebral or risky television can be found in these select places, if you buy into the hype (which the large number of subscribers proves beyond doubt.) There’s some heavily acclaimed shows being pumped out these days with unconventional premises and surprising development (Breaking Bad; Weeds, in its prime; ) on networks that, for a while now, have built their brands firmly upon acclaim. However, the viewership, the numbers, the advertising revenue, often fail to hold a candle to even an NCIS: Topeka on the big broadcast networks.

There’s an apparent divide.

Explicating on it brings up philosophical questions about the function of television itself in this country (Is it just for fun? Is it art? Is it just the pace between commercials? Can it really function as all three?); and sometimes polarizes viewers. In AL times, a time when the divide is most apparent mostly because of the novelty of a show having crossed it, television shows sometimes seem to be abhorred almost as much for being bad as they are for their overzealous fan-bases that cite the divide for their poor performance. “If Community struggles because it is ‘too smart for people to get’ and would ‘do great on IFC’ or blah blah blah, then… fuck you” is pretty much the sentiment on several blogs and forums (not that I would know. I’m too cool for that sort of stuff. heheheh)1 TV preferences and opinions have always been various but recently it’s become clear, the various have no need or willingness to even co-exist. The very fact that no reality-TV discussion will ever be showcased on this blog reflects my similarly pretentious allocation of worth to some things on television while completely ignoring others, in spite of and perhaps because of the prominent narratives about those unscripted shows.

My point is that we may not fully understand the divide well enough to effectively map out the television landscape without hurt feelings, but its presence is certainly being felt, especially when a show like Awake seems to challenge some of its paradigms.

Awake, on the surface, is a fairly standard police procedural. The creator, Kyle Killen, is known for also creating Lone Star, which aired briefly on FOX in 2010 (Doesn’t sound familiar? Blame the divide, I guess.) Wilmer Valderrama, in a redemption role after offending so many mamas, plays a rookie, sidekick to the main protagonist. Steve Harris plays a more seasoned, more Black sidekick to the main protagonist. The psychiatrist from SVU is playing one of the protagonist’s psychiatrists. So the cast is as loaded as it need be.2 The show gets weird when you realize that protagonist, detective Britten, as you might have surmised, is living a sort of double life. And not the I have a fiance in Topeka and a wife in Tulsa sort. The my wife is dead and I’m a single father when the lens filter is cool, and I’m mourning my dead son with my very alive wife whenever the color palette turns warm sort of double life!3 That’s cool. The critics love the series. More importantly, they love to talk about it. They have since last June.

But what is really impressive, at least in regards to what has been discussed here, is that in essence this series is plainly two police procedurals. The innovation to the broadcast TV formula is effectively and inexplicably just multiplying the standard police procedural formula by two, and doing it exceptionally well. Awake is a damn good procedural too. It watches like BBC’s Luther in tone and earnestness, like the good parts of AMC’s The Killing. But it has this structure that’s so weird, it challenges our relationship with cop shows en masse. Two big cases, not just one, will probably be solved each week. Satisfying? Should be. But there’s a big overarching mystery, that will be mulled over at the pace of a psychiatrist helping you address your persistent maternal sex dreams. It might seem like a series of hours but much more is going on under the covers.

I’m excited about this series. Not confident in its success in the days AL. But excited nonetheless.


1 I’m not in fact cool.
2 Also on the show: a Death Eater and the kid who played Jack Shephard’s son in the sideways universe
3 Sincere exclaims!!! Yea, I’m not cool.

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Yup. There’s an intentional pun in that title. And it refers dutifully to Wednesday nights of yore, way back in 2004 when committed sci-fi fanatics and casual remote control wielding Americans alike were first introduced to the ABC ratings goliath choreographed by J.J. Abrams and company, set on some island somewhere. It follows then that déjà vu abounds when J.J. Abrams stamps his name on a new series for FOX focused on another island that may be more infamous than the one where viewers first fell in love the Oceanic Flight 815 survivors, if in name alone. In its two-hour series premiere, Alcatraz makes it abundantly clear that it aims to aggressively court the viewers with a keen eye for nerd-bait as well as the regular chums with expendable incomes and Nielsen boxes – the bread and butter of the once resplendent Lost fandom.

Jorge Garcia fundamentally reprises perhaps the most iconically uncontroversial character in recent television history without even bothering to get a haircut. New Hurley does and says old Hurley things as he obsesses over this new old island and explores this new 50 year-old mystery (about supposedly old inmates turned new.) He’s a bit taken aback by the possibility of supernatural time-traveling crooks, but only a bit because he’s the protector of the Island now, or that’s what we’re meant to infer. On occasion you may even catch him mid-soliloquy, discussing how familiar he is with the Island and some but not all of its secrets.
There’s certainly other Lost easter eggs here and there but just like its titlecard font, Alcatraz is reminiscent of but clearly not Lost. In fact, Alcatraz is J.J. Abrams’ new sci-fi police procedural hybrid darling on FOX. A series for those in need of a serving of smart, intuitive, young blonde detective with a problematic history that she somehow uses to fuel an ambition to solve unconventional cases. Maybe she’s an FBI agent. Maybe her partner’s dead. Maybe give her a specialist/consultant/expert as a partner in his stead. She uses unorthodox methodologies anyway and kicks enough ass for the both of them. Right?

When Fringe first premiered on FOX in the fall of 2008, during the fourth season of Lost, Lance Reddick seemed to carry intrigue and enigma from one universe to another – along with strong acting chops exercised on the Wire. Fringe enjoys a bit of the Lost-but-not treatment as well, subtly for the most part (an Oceanic boarding pass here or there), but has developed into something wholly independent with some of the most ambitious and original storytelling on television today, in its fourth season. But alas, the numbers, as they’re wont to do, fall short in supporting this fact. In fact, besides ratings, Fringe is getting increasingly more expensive to produce as time progresses, an unattractive position to be in.

Then comes Alcatraz. Plainly put, Alcatraz is Fringe with less. Less cost. Less plot. Less science. Rebecca Madsen (played by Sarah Jones), the lead detective closely following the supernatural events surrounding Alcatraz island, even has significantly less blonde hair than Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv), the lead FBI agent of the Fringe division. There’s a leanness to Alcatraz that positions it in opposition to Fringe, even while on the same network. Fringe has been on cancellation watch since nearly its onset because of attributes that simultaneously limit its viewership yet contribute to its remarkably consistent quality – almost everyone now plays two characters in two parallel universes just for kicks. And sadly, the old tricks to save both worlds, like Warner Bros finding lucrative licensing deals, may not work this time around.

In a very real way, Alcatraz represents a faith worst than death for Fringe and its loyal fanbase: the knowledge that in an alternate universe where Fringe wasn’t as creative and Anna Torv’s hair wasn’t as long and Joshua Jackson wasn’t as fit, things might be different. It’s important to know this if Fringe doesn’t make it and the Others on the island somehow thrive. Alcatraz is a series with promise that may or may not meet expectations, but Fringe is undeniably in the company of Alias and Lost when it comes to Abrams productions that contributed greatly to sci-fi action dramas on primetime.

So when asked what they died for (the Lost pun game isn’t easy), be sure to tell them that. The End.

P.S. Did you know J.J. Abrams created Felicity? And in other news that you don’t necessarily want or need, here’s a map of Fringe ratings throughout the US courtesy of tvbythenumbers. That is all